For a map of the projects reviewed in the Chaddick Report, scan this QR code. 


Rail Abandonment and Rails to Trails      

The repurposing of out-of-service rail lines for public parks and shared-use trails is an important Rails-to-Trails movement that has created thousands of popular recreational trails throughout the country. VRPI appreciates the environmental, recreational, and economic benefits of such uses and understands that not every former rail line warrants preservation and restoration.

        However, once the tracks are removed and the right-of-way converted to a park or trail easement, any potential for restoration of the former rail lie vanishes forever. Some states have established policies of "rail banking" potential abandonments to preserve passenger and/or freight rail opportunities for the future. Virginia, however, has no established and codified policy for the public preservation of lines in danger of being abandoned, taken out of service, or repurposed for non-rail uses.  


 

The Public Acquisition of Abandoned, Out-of-Service, and Underutilized Freight Lines for
Future Public Routes 

Virginia's ground-breaking rail initiatives announced in December, 2019 includes the acquisition of two rail lines - one abandoned and the other underutilized -  for state-sponsored passenger routes, illustrating the importance of maintaining at-risk rights-of-way and infrastructure for future rail projects. The VRPI Executive Committee is aware of two ongoing Rails-to-Trails initiatives that have received wide public support as well as state funding for feasibility studies to advance the projects, both of which would convert former Virginia freight lines to shared bike and walking paths.   

Eastern Shore Rail to Trail Study - Projects | Virginia Department of Transportation

Former Shenandoah Valley railway could become 50-mile trail | Growth & Conservation | bayjournal.com

          Projects such as these, particularly the Shenandoah Valley project, raise significant public policy questions about the lack of coordination between planning for parks, trails, and land conservation and planning for future rail projects in Virginia.


 

VRPI's Response and Recommendations

In response to the urgent need to develop and codify public policy that will allow for the co-existence of both rail trails and the preservation of abandoned and out-of-service rail lines, VRPI issued a letter and statement to Governor Ralph Northam, Transportation Secretary, Shannon Valentine, and Department of Rail and Public Transportation Executive Director, Jennifer Mitchell on December 07, 2020 and subsequently spoke with Director Mitchell about our recommendations for such a policy. 


          VRPI recommends the codification and adoption of a standard transportation policy to address future rail abandonments and rails-to-trails proposals, specifically: 

  •   Current and/or inactive rail lines coming up for abandonment shall be rail banked;
  •   If trails are to be developed on banked or abandoned rail lines, trails shall be designed, constructed, and operated in a manner that will permit future train operations, and;
  •   For rail lines that are abandoned, there should be a set period of time, perhaps 25 years, during which the right-of-way shall not be fragmented or irreversibly repurposed.

We are encouraged that a budget amendment adopted by the 2021 General Assembly establishes a Policy Working Group through the Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment to evaluate and recommend a prioritization process for "the identification of new multi-use trail opportunities, a master planning process, and a funding needs assessment."  
 

        Significantly, DRPT is included in the Working Group, ensuring that rail preservation will be part of the conversation. In addition, DRPT has identified Rail Preservation as a priority policy issue for the 2021 Update of the State Rail Plan. VRPI continues to monitor these developments and keep rail preservation in the public forum during meetings of the Working Group and State Rail Plan stakeholders.    
       
 


We note that Virginia's has a long-standing public policy on the importance of rail line preservation, as stated in Va. Code Section 33.2-1602, which provides:

The General Assembly declares it to be in the public interest that shortline railway preservation and development of railway transportation support facilities are important elements of a balanced transportation system of the Commonwealth for freight and passengers, and further declares it to be in the public interest that the retention, maintenance, and improvement of the shortline railway and development of railway transportation support facilities are essential to the Commonwealth's continued economic
growth, vitality, and competitiveness in national and world markets.